Managing My Allergies: Then and Now

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When I take time to look back at how I’ve learned to manage my allergies, it’s amazing to see the differences from when I was growing up versus now as a young adult.  Obviously, when I was very young, it was my parents’ responsibility to ensure that I stayed safe avoiding allergens. It’s easy to see now that they were training me from a young age to eventually take on this responsibility.  This started out with ensuring that I was able to identify what foods I couldn’t eat and only eating foods I knew were safe.  Going to school, my parents really emphasized the importance of not eating anything that was from someone else and always carrying my auto-injector with me (and knowing how to use it). When I was starting school, my parents took on the responsibility of contacting my school and my teachers to ensure that they were also knowledgeable about my allergies along with informing them of where my auto-injector was kept. They would also make sure a plan was in place for storing my medicine in the school’s office and they established a protocol for field trips. My parents also made sure my medications were always up to date and that I frequently saw my allergist. I have now been able to assume these responsibilities myself—but this change was not something that suddenly took place; it came gradually over time.

As I got older, and progressed through elementary school and then high school, I was able to become more and more active managing my allergies. My first big shift in responsibility between my parents and I came when I entered high school.  Having gone to the same school from kindergarten to grade 8, starting high school meant it was now my turn to meet with my new teachers and principal to introduce myself and discuss how we would ensure I was safe at school with my allergies.  While I took on a bigger role in this, I have to admit my mom was still present and was the one who double (and triple) checked that I had taken all the appropriate measures to ensure that I would be safe entering high school. It would not be until I started university that I truly began to feel fully independent when it came to managing my allergies.

When I moved out, all of a sudden there was no one asking if I had my medicine with me when I left to go out. Initially, everyone I met was a stranger who didn’t know about my allergies; and it was my responsibility to educate them. I never fully realized all the things my parents did to help manage my allergies until they were longer there to help with this. That being said, as I mentioned earlier on, I felt like my parents were training me to manage my allergies from a young age. And this definitely has paid off.  Going to university and living on my own have marked two of the biggest changes in terms of having total responsibility when it comes to managing my allergies; but I have never felt unprepared.  Living on my own, I have lived a far distance from my parents and old friends who are already very knowledgeable about my allergies.  I’ve also had various living arrangements that involved living with roommates who weren’t used to having a roommate with allergies.  Along with this I’ve also travelled independently to other countries where I’ve had to manage staying safe with my allergies in a foreign nation.  These are all new experiences I never encountered as a child.  That being said, with every new experience I’ve had as a young adult, I’ve felt competent to ensure that I stayed safe by using the common sense my parents taught me about managing my allergies.  I’ll admit that my parents still like to check in now and again to make sure I am staying safe with my allergies; but what is different now is that I am the one with the responsibility to manage this.  One of the positive things that has not changed in this situation, though, is trust. When I was young, I trusted my parents to make sure I was safe with my allergies and, now having watched me grow up with allergies, my parents can trust me to do the same.

Caitlyn P.

Common Misconceptions about Food Allergies

Wooden Man in Labyrinth with Map Having lived with multiple allergies my whole life, I’ve heard a lot of misinformation. Some people think that peanuts are nuts, but almonds aren’t. Others believe that allergies can be cured by hypnotism or that food allergies are really just a myth invented by “Big Pharma” to make money. Out of all the misconceptions I’ve heard, there are a few tenacious ones that keep popping up:

1 – Immunotherapy is a cure for food allergies

Immunotherapy is a process that desensitizes a person to their allergen by giving them small amounts of it over a long period of time. It’s done in a hospital under very controlled circumstances because, as you would expect, feeding someone their allergen can be dangerous. The goal of immunotherapy isn’t to “cure” someone of their allergy but, rather, to allow them to tolerate a larger amount than they originally could. It’s still a pretty experimental process and it isn’t offered everywhere. It also isn’t suitable for everyone; and the results haven’t been shown to be permanent.

2 – You have allergies because your mom was overprotective of you as a child

There are several theories regarding the cause of allergies, one of which is the “hygiene hypothesis.” For some reason, this theory is particularly popular in the comments section on YouTube and news sites; and it is often presented as fact. It pretty much says that, if you’re not exposed to enough germs as a kid, your immune system will get messed up and you’ll end up with allergies. This is just one of many theories, because no one knows the real cause of food allergies. Other possible reasons include the presence of GMOs in our foods, changes in our diets, genetics, the environment, and many more. At the end of the day, we don’t know why more and more people are developing allergies.

3 – If you’re only “a little” allergic to something, you don’t need an auto-injector

I’ve watched friends eat things they were allergic to because their only symptoms were a little bit of an itchy throat. These friends also never carried auto-injectors with them because they had never had a severe allergic reaction before. It’s important to point out that, even if you usually have a small reaction to something, it could one day turn into a big reaction. If that happens, an auto-injector could be life saving.

This was just a short list of some false statements I’ve heard regarding food allergies. It’s important to try and educate people, when they have gaps in their knowledge, about food allergies because public awareness is an important part of keeping people with allergies safe. For reliable information, Anaphylaxis Canada is a great resource.

Talia

Allergies and Eating on Campus 

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When you enter your University or College years, there’s a lot to initially think about with new schedules, new friends, new living quarters and, of course, new food! I’d like to take a few minutes to share my experiences about eating food on campus to help relieve some of the worries you may or may not have about feeding yourself over the next few years.

First thing is first. Always ask about what foods are safe for you to eat. Cafeterias can be found in a lot of residences and this will likely be the main place that students like you will eat every day. Tell the front-line servers about your food allergy as well as the supervisor or manager. In a place that you could end up eating every day, it’s a good idea for the staff to know your face, the severity of your allergy, and how they can avoid cross-contamination of foods. If they don’t understand something, explain it to them. It may just be a simple case of the staff using different wording than you’re used to using. In the end, stick with your gut feeling! If they just don’t seem to understand the severity of your allergy, or if there is too much food with your allergen nearby to feel comfortable, move on to another cafeteria or restaurant. There are always many options for food on campus.

Another thing you can do is look for restaurant franchises. These are places that use the same menus, food items, and food policies from restaurant to restaurant. Try to locate places you have felt comfortable eating at prior to University or College and eat there. However, just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean the food is necessarily allergen-free or that cross-contamination hasn’t become a habit at this location. Always, always, always ask before you eat! It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Now, what about kitchens? There’s a lot to consider when shared kitchens are involved. Shared kitchens in residence can quite frankly get very messy very quick. It only takes a few messy people (and believe me, there’s always one) to make everyone else’s cooking experience a frustrating one. The good news is that you can prepare for this and avoid potentially dangerous situations. My advice is to keep your food in your bedroom with you. This help keeps the food safe from potential cross-contamination and safe from other people taking it. If you can get your hands on a mini fridge, go for it! These are very handy and give you the chance to keep fresh foods fresh without the worries of someone else eating or touching your food! It’s also smart to keep a few plates, bowls, utensils, and maybe a pot or pan with you in your room. This way, you can cook and eat off of equipment you know is clean and safe from your allergen. If this isn’t an option, invest in some dish soap and a cloth and always clean the cooking equipment before you prepare a meal.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to teach the people on your floor about your allergy. If this makes you uncomfortable, ask your Don or residence life staff to host a meeting and explain the severity of food allergies without mentioning your name. It is their job to ensure your safety; so speaking up and getting their help can be very beneficial. If you’re lucky, and get a private kitchen or a semi-private kitchen and only have to share with one other person, your job just got a whole lot easier! It’s easier to manage food and cooking equipment when only one or two other people are sharing it with you.

I know there are many different things to consider while eating on campus; but just be confident, careful, and enjoy the experience!

Dylan B.

 

Instructing Others About How to Read Food Labels

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Having grown up with food allergies, I found that a special skill I acquired from a very young age was the ability to carefully read food ingredient labels.  I sometimes joked that, as a child, I read more labels than I did books (which when I think about it is very true!).  That being said, for people who don’t have food allergies, reading ingredient labels to make sure they don’t contain specific food allergens can be a complicated task to navigate.

There are helpful tips that can be given to those less experienced with reading ingredient labels; these  can help them successfully identify what foods are or are not allergen free.  The first important step is to identify what allergens need to be avoided. Canada has new labelling guidelines that require manufacturers to use simple language when referring to priority allergens. Become familiar with these new guidelines at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/allergen/index-eng.php

It can also be useful to have knowledge about what types of foods typically contain what allergens.  For example, some ice creams, while typically a no–go for people with dairy allergies, may also pose a problem for some people with egg or nut allergies.  Being able to identify what allergens are commonly found in what foods comes over time  along with a general knowledge about what purpose different food allergens serve in different food products (i.e. egg as a binder or wheat flour as a thickener).  That being said, the ingredient label is always the best way to verify what is in your food.

When instructing someone about how to read an ingredient label, after making sure they know what allergens they are looking for, ensure that the label is read VERY carefully.  This includes ensuring that the person who is reading the label is able to identify EACH ingredient listed.  If they are ever unsure, it is always a good idea to consult the person with the allergy to determine if listed ingredients are safe.  It also is never a bad idea to re-read (or re- re-read!) the label so one can confidently say that the ingredient list doesn’t contain any allergens.

Another thing to look out for when reading food labels is to identify if the label lists any allergens that MIGHT be found in the food product.  These food allergen warnings are most commonly listed directly below the ingredient list and commonly say something along the lines of “This product MAY CONTAIN” or is produced in the “SAME FACILITY” or on the “SAME MACHINE” as certain allergens.   While it is not definite that these foods contain these allergens, eating these items still poses a huge risk (and why risk it, right?).  It is also important to make sure that whoever is reading the ingredient label understands that any food that ‘May Contain’ an allergen should best be treated as if it still contains that allergen (and therefore avoided).

Last, but not least, while it’s important for those around to be educated about reading ingredient labels, you are still the primary person responsible for ensuring that you are staying safe and avoiding food allergens. Always personally ensure that you are able to eat questionable foods before taking a risk.

 Caitlyn P. 

 

 

 

 

Food Allergies and the Transition to University Life

University Students laptop
If you have a food allergy, the transition to university can be a pretty daunting experience. In high school, you were likely surrounded by people who had known you well for many years and teachers who knew your name. In university, the chances of this happening again are quite slim. Most classes contain 400+ students and, unless you manage to schedule time to meet with your professors multiple times, they likely won’t know your name let alone your food allergy. So what’s the good news? The good news is that you prepared for this ahead of time and are ready for the new challenge of independence! In case you’re still in the preparation phase, I’ve put together a few things to think about and look for within your new environment.

Let’s start with the dorm life. Many first year dorms or residences contain a lot of shared bedrooms where the room is shared with a roommate. Every school is different so be sure to scope out possible residence options when you apply to that school. Also, be sure to educate your roommate (if you have one) and all new friends about your food allergies and the proper administration of your auto-injector. You are definitely going to eat in your room, which means your roommate will also eat there. With this in mind, your safety is paramount. If your roommate doesn’t understand the severity of your food allergy, speak with the residence life staff and ask them to help you explain it. Also, don’t be afraid to make special room requests when applying or even after being accepted to a university. You can ask to be placed in an allergy-friendly room or ask for a solo room to ensure your safety.

Next up, cafeteria food. If you are living in a residence with no shared kitchen, you will likely be eating a lot of campus food. Treat this experience as you would going to a local restaurant. Explain the severity of your food allergy to the food staff and ask if they serve any food that may contain your allergen(s). Then ask to speak with a manager or supervisor to ensure you will be looked after for that day and every day in the next year. Ask if the staff know what cross-contamination means and whether or not there is any risk of this with their food. Lastly, stick with your gut feeling. If you feel uneasy about eating at a particular cafeteria or restaurant, move on! There are plenty of other options on campus to fill your stomach.

Another thing to look into for your university is anaphylaxis policies. These can be quite difficult to navigate and find. Even if your school does have policies for food allergies, they are likely to appear on a continuum from either very diverse to cover every food allergy to very specific where less-severe allergies may be overlooked. These are worth taking the time to look into as it may inform a lot of your food choices on campus. If you find that food allergy policies do not exist at your university, you might want to join a university council or speak with a campus political leader to try to put a new policy in place. These people are working to make the student experience more positive; so don’t be afraid to ask! They will almost always do everything they can to help.

Last but not least, parties. By now, you’ve likely been exposed to parties and have learned a few things about managing your food allergy in a party atmosphere. However, at university and college, alcoholic drinks tend to make an appearance. This may be a new obstacle for you and, if it is, remember to keep a level head. If you notice that a drinking game has people sharing cups, it is a good idea to avoid playing that game since you don’t know what these people ate earlier in the day. It could have been your food allergen! Also, stick to drinks you know to be safe for you. There are many different types of alcoholic beverages out there and some contain almond extract, hazelnut, dairy, etcetera. So stay aware and stay safe.

This may seem like a lot to look out for when also trying to manage the new challenges of course work; but remember that you are independent and are ready to conquer university!

Dylan B.

Allergies in Film and Television Part 3: Translation to the Real World

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To add to the “Allergies in Film and Television: Myths versus Realities” series, I’ve decided to write a follow-up post describing some of the impacts these depictions have in the real world and how we, as informed adults, can change this.

Let me start with a quick example from my life. Last September I moved to a new city to pursue a Master’s degree; so I had to meet all new friends and teach them how to properly administer my auto-injector. As a method of teaching, I gave my new friends an auto-injector trainer and asked them to show me how they thought it worked. A few of them thought the needle had to be driven into my chest, while others figured it probably needed to go into the arm or buttocks. After explaining that the proper location is on the side of the mid-thigh, I asked them why they thought about these other locations. One answer stood out to me as alarming: “I saw it in that movie last week.” The movie was Horrible Bosses when Charlie Day slams (and yes, I mean slams) an auto-injector into Kevin Spacey’s neck and chest repeatedly. Although a funny scene in a comedic movie, this depiction had a clear and potentially dangerous impression on someone who could end up trying the same tactics on me or somebody else in need.

It becomes more concerning when you realize that I’m in my mid-20’s and people half my age have likely seen this movie and thought the exact same thing as my friend. This is just one example of how depictions in a movie can sneak into real-world situations. It’s a big risk using an auto-injector like this to treat an anaphylactic reaction since the mid-outer thigh has been found to be the most effective site for injection. And this could lead to a life-threatening situation that could have easily been avoided if the auto-injector was properly depicted in the film.

In the case above, I was able to correct some myths about food allergies and explain the proper use of an auto-injector. However, I’m sure there are still people who believe that auto-injectors need to be slammed into someone’s chest to save them. So what can we do as informed adults to reverse the myths seen on television and in movies? Simply put, we can educate and spread awareness. I like to bring trainer auto-injectors with me when meeting new people so that I can give them a hands-on learning experience. This is a simple way to not only teach others about your allergy, but it’s also a great ice-breaker! The more you educate people around you about the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, and the proper use of an auto-injector, the more prepared they will be to properly handle any anaphylactic situation they encounter in the future.

As an avid movie-goer and television show enthusiast, I also strongly encourage informing yourself about how food allergies are depicted in films and television shows. That way, when someone nearby starts talking about a movie or show that you know has an improper depiction of food allergies, you can jump in and steer them in the right direction with education! That way we all win.

Dylan B. 

Guest Post: His and Hers–Philip and Barbra

romantic walkWe all have different ways to deal with our allergies and to, specifically, deal with the challenges that allergies can create when we are dating or in a long-term relationship. The following story details what has worked for a couple living within this context and has some insights about what works for them and what does not. You, as someone with allergies or dating someone with allergies, must decide what is practical for you and what makes you feel and stay safe.

HIS:

My name is Philip Parry. I’m a schoolteacher, a musician, a marathoner, a boyfriend and, yes, an adult at risk for anaphylaxis to peanuts, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and soy protein. Truth be told, as I child, I never really identified as someone with allergies. I grew up in a household with two other siblings with their own sets of allergies; so all of the food passing through the house was guaranteed to be safe. My school was early to adopt an allergy-safe policy and my two best friends had their own unique food needs (diabetes and lactose intolerance respectively). Surrounded by informed and caring people, I managed to make it to my late teens with minimal participation on my part.

The first real challenge set in when I left home to study music in another city. Suddenly I was responsible for deciding upon all of the food that went into my mouth. My first run-in with allergies happened on my 19th birthday during an impromptu and inebriated game of capture-the-flag on campus. My roommate had just returned from a visit with his grandmother and had brought back some of her secret recipe chocolate chip cookies. After a few catch-up drinks, my roommate was slurring his way through an invitation to try said cookies. Being a well-trained allergy kid, I piped in with the obligatory “are there peanuts in here?” The second he said “I don’t think so” my party-fuelled munchies kicked in and I managed to scarf down an entire cookie while simultaneously thinking about the interesting flavour I wasn’t used to. It only took a few seconds for the two of us to realize that grandma’s cookies, although containing no whole peanuts, might have a certain secret ingredient… peanut butter. After a grueling night spent in the hospital (and a missed capture-the-flag opportunity!) I learned a few things. First, be careful of drinking and snacking! This is one thing they don’t teach you as a kid. Allergies don’t take the night off; so you can’t either. In addition, asking “the question” isn’t always enough. Many people are inexperienced in dealing with food allergies and aren’t used to thinking about food as its component parts or thinking about cross contamination between food items.

The most interesting and complicated issue to arise from being an adult with allergies has without a doubt come from the world of dating and relationships–as if that weren’t complicated enough already! It started out simply. A girlfriend of mine in high school loved peanut butter sandwiches and would have them for lunch more often than not. By this point, I’d already heard that a common cause of reactions was from contact with a significant other. So I got into the habit of asking her every day whether or not she was lethal. If she was, we’d have to wait until the next day before we could kiss.

Taking someone out on a date brings its own set of problems because it leaves you with one of two options. Option A is to go somewhere familiar or well researched. If you’re careful, you can take a date somewhere that has been vetted in advance. This usually works well so long as her favourite food isn’t Thai, Indian, Ethiopian or Mediterranean, and the place isn’t full, overpriced or hard to get to. Option A works if you aren’t concerned about being spontaneous or adventurous when going on dates. Option B is the guess-and-check method. In this scenario, you walk into a restaurant with your date and start asking a long series of food preparation related questions. This option works fine so long as you’re prepared to spend more time talking to the server, chef, and manager than to your date. And this is only if the first restaurant is able to accommodate you. Be prepared to try a few places before someone is willing to risk feeding a ticking time-bomb. In either case, you’ll end up feeling guilty for making a simple meal into a complicated mission.

I was fortunate enough to find someone who was able to tolerate my food allergy shenanigans (and my personality); but being in a long-term relationship as an adult with allergies has also been a rocky road—no pun intended. In our house, peanuts are a straight up ‘no-go’ (I’m particularly sensitive to them). And I constantly feel guilty taking away one of her favourite treats. We keep other legumes (to which I’m allergic) around as a staple protein source because, of course, she’s a vegetarian and, like me, a protein-hungry marathon runner. This generally leads to making separate meals for both of us to get the protein we need. It’s not only difficult. It is extremely time consuming. It takes a careful mix of compromise, advance planning, cautious food preparation, and Tupperware in the freezer to make things work. Even though we somehow always find a way to feed ourselves, it hasn’t been easy. And it hasn’t gone flawlessly. Did I mention that all vegetarian protein powders are basically made with peanuts or peas? Barbra making a Vega smoothie means I have to run and take cover.

The first time I had an allergic reaction while I was with Barbra was agonizing–both physically and emotionally. Having a reaction makes you feel stupid and guilty to begin with because, in retrospect, you can usually figure out the mistake you made to land yourself in the hospital. Now add onto that the fact that you have to make a phone call in the middle of the day to tell someone you love that you put yourself there–a call that you know will make them scared, worried, and stressed-out. In the best-case scenario, they are able to make it to the hospital and sit with you while you turn purple, break out in hives, and gasp for breath right in front of their eyes. This is what happened in my case and I’ve been told it’s a very traumatic experience. If she hadn’t been able to get out of work or class, she would have had to sit and writhe in her seat for hours wondering if I were suffering or recovering. In either case, it’s not a fate I would wish upon anybody.

Despite all of the challenges, I’ve managed to keep a positive attitude and look for the silver lining that comes with being an adult with allergies.  Having discovered early on that food made by other people, no matter how well intentioned, is a potential hazard, I was forced to cook exciting meals for myself and for others–not a bad date idea in itself. For a music student, struggling to pay tuition, this proved to be an invaluable skill. As a person concerned about healthy eating, having allergies has been a very useful status to invoke for both me and Barbra when being offered junk food at a social event that might otherwise be rude to refuse.

When it comes to being in a relationship as an adult with allergies, the best piece of advice that I can offer is to have fun with it. Take some time to look up the best restaurants or specialty food spots in your area and make an adventure date out of it. Look up recipes for foods you love to eat and make a game out of perfecting your own allergen-free versions at home. The more you do things like this, the more you and make your partner feel like allergies are less of an inconvenient problem and more like an interesting quirk.

HERS:

Wow…Philip writes a lot. My name is Barbra Lica and I’m a Jazz singer-songwriter as well as Philip’s frustrated but understanding girlfriend. I must say, I don’t have nearly as much to write as him because food allergies are only a five (six?) year old sport to me. Before Philip, my ultra Eastern-European-pride household consisted of the following people: those who think food allergies are a myth, those who think food allergies are curable with prolonged and consistent exposure, and those who think it’s one of those things that happens if you don’t breastfeed enough. And only North Americans don’t breastfeed enough I’m told. I even had a family friend warn me about the dangers of having children with this boy. “Date him, love him–no babies!” Of course, I don’t take any of that to heart. Philip has a zillion great things to pass on to babies. I mean, we’re still not having any in the foreseeable future; but his allergies certainly aren’t the reason why.

Anyway, I won’t lie, there were many difficulties at first. I love food. I eat every emotion I ever have and, to top it off, I’m a vegetarian with marathon training on the docket. So I basically need the foods that kill Phil as a protein source. It still meant giving certain foods up entirely because they’re too difficult to keep contained (peanut butter) or, alternatively, eating them away from the house followed by a paranoid clothes-removal and wash-down. I’ve gone so far as rinsing my mouth out with soap! Even with all that effort on my part, the Philip I met in University was a very reckless fellow who insisted on eating the free unlabeled intermission food at every music recital the Faculty of Music had to offer. The first time I saw him have an attack, I was horrified. Truthfully, the image is seared into my brain and I cried so hard I think it’s part of the reason he’s more careful now. But you can be as careful as you like and still have accidents. I remember one time we called a restaurant I liked before going there to ask about peanuts; and they said it was no problem. We confirmed this again when we got there. As we rushed out of the restaurant to the hospital, I remember hearing “No peanuts! Peanut butter only!” Safe to say, I no longer like that restaurant. So here I am, several years later, and do I miss Peanut Butter & Jam sandwiches? You betcha! But they’re that much tastier when I go out of town for a gig. We also cook at home together a lot more these days and it always turns into a fun date where we’ll put on nice music and cook up about 5 dishes in one night that are allergen-free and easily freezable. I’ll even put chickpeas in my salad because they’re easy to keep in a jar in the fridge and pour directly on my salad as an add-on without hurting Philip. So yes, I worry about crazy, reckless Philip quite a lot and, sometimes, I’m even the culprit when it comes to feeding his chocolate addiction–he’ll stare in the window of a chocolate shop with big puppy eyes right next to the sign that advertises special edition peanut truffles and I’ll be all “maybe those ones didn’t come in contact with the peanut ones.” But, all in all, we’ve found a routine and I’m just used to it. After all, nobody ever said anything against JAM sandwiches!! JAM!! So…I might have an issue with Jam….don’t look in my fridge…

Check out Barbra’s song and music video at the link below!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWjygxbQbQY&feature=youtu.be

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